It’s understandable that senior management want to conduct research before investing in a new brand. The need to keep everyone on-board can also result in scrutiny from key audiences. But ‘design by committee’ can often kill great ideas, which is why choosing the right research methodology and interpreting the findings correctly is critical to creativity.
A common mistake is to prioritise preference, but a ‘beauty parade’ doesn’t always meet the brief or brand objectives. Mass appeal is more likely to be vanilla. If a brand can connect with a well-targeted audience segment its usage will often spread; good examples include Airbnb, Uber and Snapchat.
Identify target audience segments to inform decision-making. The Parkinson’s UK rebrand is a great example. Chief Executive Steve Ford was brave enough to opt for a creative concept more popular with younger segments for growth purposes. Not the most popular option with the majority or existing supporters.
The second question is “which methodology?”, so weigh up the options carefully. Focus groups are still hugely popular, but consider how we consume brands in the real world; in person, in passing or online. We don’t sit around for an hour or two rationally analysing logos, fonts and colours in isolation.
Qualitative research still has a place to explore brand ideas and how they make people feel. However, I don’t think they are the best forum for researching design detail, which can be highly subjective. It’s interesting that for much of the creative process Pixar only asks other film-makers for feedback. When it does general public screenings they focus on how people react, not what they say. If you do conduct focus groups, consider call-backs to test brand salience and the points that people remember most.
Trustees like robust evidence so quantitative research is good for providing statistical data. Consumer panels can be screened by target audiences and the same survey can often be used to engage existing audiences. Helpfully, results can then be analysed by audience segment. This is good for testing name and strapline options or advertising concepts when you want to research brand response. But consider similar design compositions to avoid any bias.
Far too often overlooked, semiotics studies how icons, signs and symbols convey meaning. This is useful for understanding what design signifies rather than peoples’ preferences, which can be highly subjective. Rather than a beauty pageant, we should focus on what the designs are communicating and the emotional response they elicit, remembering the importance of first impressions.
To create true meaning, your brand expression needs to be able to tell your story and project a distinct and differentiated personality. If the medium is the message, the brand idea should be encapsulated in the identity. Semiotic analysis can provide valuable insight into how well you’re intended meaning, purpose and values are received and understood.
Context is everything. Design doesn’t work in isolation so research how people will experience the brand, such as a Facebook ad or on a smart phone. In today’s world, identities need to work on app icons (favicons) and in moving media. That’s why visual elements are increasingly tested in a digital environment to understand their impact on the user experience.
Quali-quant or semio-qual
There are now products on the market that allow you to mix methodologies. Online quant with enough open-ended questions to provide some qualitative insight. Or qualitative research in conjunction with semiotic analysis.
- When researching brand strategy hypotheses and propositions look for the ingredients that elicit the right emotional response to inform further development.
- There is no doubt in my mind that when it comes to brand design, creativity must lead. Recommendations should be made by experts and decisions made by a few. So research the brand proposition and creative direction, not the detail.